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Departments largely split on PDF policy for departmental requirements and prerequisites

<h5>Grading policies for each Princeton department this fall.</h5>
<h6>Anika Maskara / The Daily Princetonian</h6>
Grading policies for each Princeton department this fall.
Anika Maskara / The Daily Princetonian

When students returned home in the spring, the University took the extraordinary step of amending standard academic policy. Several such modifications remain in place this semester, with students able to take any course on a pass/D/fail (PDF) basis and the number of courses taken via PDF not counting toward students’ typical four-course limit.

Unlike in the spring, however, the University no longer requires that departments accept courses taken on a PDF basis, either to fulfill departmental requirements or prerequisites.


As a result, departments have adopted a patchwork of PDF policies. Eighteen have elected to continue counting all PDF-graded classes. Three will accept PDF-graded prerequisites, but not departmentals, while one will accept PDF-graded departmentals, but not prerequisites. Fourteen returned to requiring a letter grade.

Across the board, departments’ lack of consistency has left some students frustrated.

Angie Sheehan ’22, a concentrator in the School of Public and International Affairs (SPIA), said, “I’ve been a little disappointed by SPIA’s policies this semester just because they’ve taken a much harsher stance for grading compared to other departments and don’t seem to be receptive to unequal conditions at home.”

The Departments of Astrophysical Sciences, Chemical and Biological Engineering, Civil and Environmental Engineering, Economics, Electrical Engineering, English, French and Italian, History, Mathematics, Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Molecular Biology, Physics, Politics, and SPIA have reverted to their previous grading policies, which require courses be taken for a grade to count toward departmental progress.

Meanwhile, the Departments of Geoscience and Sociology are allowing PDF grades to satisfy prerequisites, but not departmentals. The Department of Chemistry has adopted a unique policy, allowing most prerequisites to be taken on a PDF basis but requiring at least one semester of the required yearlong organic chemistry sequence to be taken for a grade.

Courses taken to fulfill general math, physics, chemistry, and computing requirements for engineers also must be taken on a graded basis, though students with challenging individual circumstances may request to take them on a PDF basis, according to a compiled spreadsheet of departments’ policies sent by Forbes Director of Studies Rashidah Andrews to students in the College.


While the Department of Mathematics previously said concentrators would be able to count departmental courses taken on a PDF basis, they have since modified their decision and no longer accept the PDF option for prerequisites or departmentals.

“The department felt that the courses very much build on each other, so it is ultimately detrimental if there is a missing step,” Professor János Kollár, Director of Undergraduate Studies for the mathematics department, told The Daily Princetonian. He added that the department has been in “regular touch” with concentrators and that they do not see any “unusual problems” following the policy change. 

According to University Deputy Spokesperson Michael Hotchkiss, the Faculty Committee on Examinations and Standings’ decision to adjust many regular grading policies and deadlines in the spring — including mandating departments to accept PDF grading for departmental requirements and prerequisites — came “in acknowledgement of the sudden and unanticipated shift to remote learning in the spring.”

“Neither faculty nor students had time to prepare for the new learning environment, and so it seemed appropriate to be as flexible as possible,” he added. “The University was responding to an emergency; departments adjusted their grading policies to give students the best chance of success under exceedingly difficult circumstances.”

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Hotchkiss added that the fall term, “while still remote, was not a surprise.” In line with standing University policy, administrators left grading responsibilities to the faculty, who “have the best understanding of what is the appropriate method of assessment in their course and in their discipline,” according to Hotchkiss.

“Students were able to choose their courses understanding the challenges of remote learning; faculty were more prepared for the challenges and opportunities of remote instruction,” he added. “Under the circumstances, it seemed advisable to return to Princeton’s regular grading policy — as did many of our peer institutions.”

Members of the politics department’s Undergraduate Committee — a group of nine students that represent undergraduates in departmental meetings — requested that their department allow PDF-grading for departmental courses, but the department retained its decision to have all departmental courses be taken for a letter grade.

In an email to politics concentrators, John Kastellec, an associate professor of politics, wrote that the department’s leadership understands the concerns that motivated the request but decided to maintain the policy. According to this message, this decision was guided by both “general guidance” from the Office of the Dean of the College regarding departmentals, as well as the department’s “belief that the educational value of a course — in particular, those within the major — is superior to when a course is taken PDF.”

The “general guidance” that Kastellec cited likely refers to the Faculty Committee on Examinations and Standing’s policy of allowing all undergraduate courses to be taken on a PDF basis, while recommending,  “Departments will generally require regular grades for independent work, as well as for courses taken to fulfill prerequisites and departmentals,” according to Hotchkiss.

Still, Kastellec encouraged students in extremely difficult situations to reach out to their residential college dean to discuss taking certain courses PDF — requests that would be considered “on a case-by-case basis.”

Other departments have somewhat similar policies in place. Mechanical and aerospace engineering administrators, for example, are willing to allow departmental courses to count on a PDF basis “only as a personal exception (due to extenuating circumstances).”

The Departments of African American Studies, Anthropology, Architecture, Art and Archaeology, Classics, Comparative Literature, Computer Science, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, East Asian Studies,  German, Music, Near Eastern Studies, Neuroscience, Operations Research and Financial Engineering, Philosophy, Psychology, Religion, Slavic Languages and Literatures, and Spanish and Portuguese will continue allowing students to count courses taken PDF toward department progress for the fall.

While allowing students to use PDF grades to satisfy departmental courses, the Department of Comparative Literature is not permitting PDF courses for prerequisite courses — the only department to adopt this particular policy. Notably, the department’s sole prerequisite is that students take a single foreign language literature course by the fall of their junior year.

Several of the 19 departments allowing students to take departmentals on a PDF basis have noted that their policies reflect the challenges of a fully remote semester.

In an email to concentrators in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, Undergraduate/Graduate Program Administrator Sandra Kaiser said that the department modified grading policy because professors are cognizant of the “stress and angst virtual learning and being away from campus resources can cause.”

Arjun Sai Krishnan, a senior in the computer science (COS) department, said, “it’s definitely been helpful that almost all COS classes will be PDF-optional.” He added that as an international student living in Singapore for the fall semester, it helps “to know that I have the option to take the pressure off a bit with a 12-hour time difference.”

Some departments that are allowing students the option to PDF departmental courses have also emphasized that students should select this option only when necessary or if extenuating circumstances arise. In an email to German concentrators, Director of Undergraduate Studies Johannes Wankhammer reminded students that “this is not a permanent policy change but a one-time accommodation for students who may experience challenges completing coursework under current circumstances.” 

Several departments that are allowing students to PDF courses taken towards departmental progress do not extend this policy to independent work. The computer science department has stated that “all independent work, including senior theses, will be graded regularly,” according to its Fall 2020 FAQ page.

According to the Department of African American Studies’ website, “students should plan to complete independent work for a letter grade.” The Department does allow certain students to PDF their independent work “during the semesters of pandemic-related disruptions,“ if approved by the student’s adviser.

Other departments, such as the Department of Classics, have explained that they will allow students to take the PDF option for not only departmental courses and prerequisites, but also for independent work, according to Director of Undergraduate Studies Joshua Billings.

The deadline for students to elect to switch their grading option to PDF is Wednesday, Nov. 4 at 11:59 p.m. EST, according to the Office of the Registrar.